October 19, 2014
How would you describe yourself? What qualities define you as a person? Are you a person of passion or justice, a person of ambition or kindness? These are personal attributes that relate to character. Some people are kind; others are determined, even ruthless, to get what they want. We know people who we might call rude, and those who are considerate and sensitive to the feelings of others. Some people are self-centered, and then there are those who put the needs of others first. We make choices on how we will behave or react to situations around us; these reveal the quality of the person we are.
On the other hand, there are attributes that have nothing to do with my character. These may have to do with the place where I live, my ethnic or religious background, my age, height, sex, income, health, weight, skin color, disability, income or level of education. Though I should be judged according to whether I have made good or poor character choices, I have no control over my family’s heritage or my genetic inheritance. It is unfair to judge me in these ways. This is prejudice, showing unfair partiality, or what James calls favoritism.
We see favoritism in many guises in contemporary society. We learn from a young age that having money and wearing the latest fashions puts us a rung up on the social ladder. We are impressed if someone graduates from an ivy league school rather than a state school. We tune in to marks of success in people, seen in a prestigious job title, the make of car they drive, the neighborhood where they live, where they go on vacation, and even the way they speak. The opposite is also true. We turn away from someone wearing torn or dirty clothes, with poor teeth or signs of being homeless. This is showing favoritism.
This week I heard about an online dating service that caters exclusively to the rich. If you make less than $200,000, you need not join. You will be weeded out. Closer to home, you and I have grown up in families or have become parents. We may try to avoid it but favoritism happens. One kid is considered more special than another. Remember the Smothers brothers? “Mother always loved you best.” We laugh, but we know how it hurts to be considered less than another because of attributes over which we have little control. An older step child can get left out when a new baby is born to a second marriage.
A sobering statistic is out from a study among young males age 15 – 19 who are killed as a result of a police shooting. Over the period 2010 through 2012, three years, it is reported that police in this country fatally shot just over 1,200 young men in the line of duty, of which for every young white man who was killed, 21 young black males were killed. This is favoritism in any sense of the word. One should not be deemed more dangerous because of skin color. We have seen that lesson played over and over in high profile cases – in Los Angeles, Florida, Missouri and others.
In our scripture lesson for this morning, James is saying that partiality, favoritism and prejudice are sin. God does not show partiality, so James feels strongly in the same way that we must not show partiality. James had a reputation in Jerusalem for being just. He would not compromise on purity because God does not. God cares for the fatherless and the widow, so we must also show mercy.
Listen to how God describes himself to Moses in Deuteronomy 10: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”
James writes that if you keep the royal law found in scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. This is the primary law from Leviticus 19. Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” Luke couples this teaching of Jesus with the parable of the Good Samaritan, who shows mercy to a traveler who was robbed, beaten and left for dead. Jews were shamed by this parable of Jesus, for Jews would never admit a Samaritan could be merciful. Samaritans were victims of prejudice in a long history of people being prejudiced against other ethnic groups.
What is wrong with favoritism? In this second chapter, James lists six ways. It is not compatible with faith in Christ. It lets us presume to be judges in God’s place, when it is not our right to do that. It insults and dishonors another person whom God has set upon this earth. It is wrong because God does not set us apart with these distinctions. God wishes us to honor all people, regardless of income. Lastly and most importantly, favoritism violates God’s law of love.
James is clear on these points. There’s no way we can miss his message. We must bring our relationships under the lordship of Jesus Christ. If we show favoritism, we sin. Even more, when we do such things, we will be judged. This is what Jesus said too – by the measure you judge, so you will be judged. He goes on, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Clearly, we need to judge ourselves, not others.
James talks about obeying the royal law found in scripture, the royal law of Jesus the king. Love your neighbor as yourself. You will find freedom in doing what is right. When we love our neighbor as ourselves, we find the freedom to accept differences among us, the freedom to be open to all people, no matter who they are, the freedom to forgive someone who has done wrong and the freedom to ask for forgiveness when we have done wrong. James says, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judge by the law that gives freedom. Judgment without mercy will be shown anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Anyone can succumb to favoritism, prejudice and partiality, but on the other hand, anyone can aspire to being a person of mercy. It doesn’t take any specific talent to be merciful, but when we see it, it is special. I share a story from a book called “Half the Sky,” written by a husband a wife team, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It contains stories of people around the world who are working to make the world a better place by acts of mercy.
They share the story of Rachel Beckwith, whose story reminded me of the efforts our Taylor girls took this summer to raise funds for children in Cardinal who don’t have money for lunch. Rachel was eight years old when she heard about people who did not have clean water in poor countries. She decided that for her ninth birthday, instead of presents, she wanted people to donate money to an organization called Charity: Water. She placed a post on their website and set a goal of $300.00 that she hoped to raise. She was a little bummed that her birthday contributions totaled only $220.00.
A few weeks after her birthday, however, Rachel was seriously injured in a car accident. She was in the hospital fighting for her life when word got out about her desire to raise money for this organization. People showed their support for the family by making donations, and very soon she had raised over $5,000.
Rachel was in a coma, but her parents would tell her as contributions poured in and how she had set a new record for giving. Tragically, she did not survive, but through her desire to help, people contributed $1.2 million dollars, enough to provide water for 30,000 people in Ethiopia. We will never know how many ripples will flow out from one pebble of mercy. From one child’s act of love, many were impacted.
Acts of mercy can change the world. I recently read the book, “The Invention of Wings,” by Sue Monk Kidd, about two sisters from the South before the Civil War, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who dared to became Quakers and Abolitionists. They endured much hardship fighting prejudice and partiality. We see so much wrong in this world, but every day we are given opportunities to live differently, through simple acts of mercy, by the grace of Jesus Christ.